Comprehensive Family Assessment

As we head into fall, this is the time of year when many agencies are looking at new programs and tools, including reliable and valid assessment tools. While the social services field has always sought to understand the families they are trying to assist, it has only been in the past two decades that there has been an emphasis on comprehensive assessment of families.

Pat Schene was among the first to define comprehensive family assessment which involves looking at the “big picture” of the family in terms of both strengths and weaknesses, not just symptoms or one incident. It further involves identifying, gathering, and weighing information and begins with the first contact with the family and continues until the case is closed. The purpose is to develop a service plan or intervention that addresses the major factors affecting a child’s well-being, safety, and permanency. The plan aims at helping the family get on the right track for improved functioning. Schene goes on to describe the steps involved in assessment and provides an excellent case example. Her article remains the best starting place to understand comprehensive family assessment and is available here

It so happens that an assessment tool for the “big picture” was in development about the same time that Schene wrote her article (it has since been updated). The original North Carolina Family Assessment Scale (NCFAS) included the domains of environment, parental capabilities, family interactions, safety, and child well-being. The initial ratings are completed at case opening are used to prioritize goals and services. The final ratings, completed at case closure, show the improvement in family functioning from the time of the initial ratings. The key to training on the tool is the case example that gives workers the opportunity to compare their ratings with the recommended ratings.

Proliferation nationwide of assessment tools created a need for evaluating the instruments. The most comprehensive evaluation, involving 85 family assessment instruments, was conducted by a research team at the University of Berkeley in 2006. The NCFAS and NCFAS-R (for use with reunifying families) ranked at the top. The study is available here

The various versions of the NCFAS tools have been involved in dozens of studies and have consistently demonstrated reliability and validity across a wide variety of programs including family preservation, differential response, supportive housing, schools, etc. For an overview of the research visit

There have been two recent developments involving the NCFAS tools. The first is the addition of two domains to address trauma and healing from trauma, the Trauma/Post-Trauma Well-Being tool. The tool was developed in response to mandates by the federal and state governments to include trauma-informed practice in all government funded services. Information on the trauma tool is available here

The second development is a web database for the NCFAS tools (NCFAS-G, NCFAS-G+R, and Trauma). The web database is accessed through any internet-linked device and allows the worker to enter ratings and other information about the family. It produces aggregate reports that can be saved, printed, or exported to Excel with graph features also available. NFPN recommends that all current users of the NCFAS tools transition to the web database. More information is available here Free demos are available upon request and introductory pricing is in effect this calendar year.

To schedule a demo of the web database or for any questions about the assessment tools, please contact Priscilla Martens, Executive Director,, 888-498-9047.

Posted by Priscilla Martens, Executive Director

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